BY Matthew McLean in Reviews | 28 MAY 15
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Issue 172

Asia in Venice

56th Venice Biennale, various venues, Italy

BY Matthew McLean in Reviews | 28 MAY 15

Chiharu Shiota, The Key in the Hand (detail), 2015, installation view in the Japanese pavilion

In the Chinese pavilion, ‘Other Future’, the strains of traditional music float above a multi-channel screening of Wu Wenguang’s ‘Village Documentary Project’, which he began in 2005 and has been working on for the past ten years. The artist invited farmers to act and direct themselves around the idea of village autonomy: subjects include the construction of a communal bathhouse, committee meetings and voting. The music emanates from Tan Dun’s film Living in Future (2015), in which a mother teaches her daughter the ‘Nu Shu’ singing of Hunan province. In Dance with Third Grandmother (2015), Wen Hui dances with a distant great aunt, whispering ‘Granny can you see me?’ Though the exhibition smacks a little of ‘Brand China’, the works are lively and touching; the clues to the country’s future, it seems, are rooted in the stories of its past.

Chinese artists were also, less positively, the focus of the Kenyan pavilion. Curated by two Italians, the pavilion was set to feature the work of six artists from the People’s Republic, one Kenyan and one Italian. In early May, after belated outrage in Kenya and an online petition renouncing the country’s ‘fraudulent representation’, the pavilion was cancelled. Although it’s hardly unusual for pavilions to feature artists from other countries – for example, Azerbaijan’s presence this year includes a de Pury-curated show of the work of Andy Warhol and Rose Wylie, among others – I wondered to what extent the outrage about the Kenyan pavilion was selective. What does it mean for a country to attempt to represent its territory in a global, émigré art world?

Some of the complexity that articulating a national identity might entail is embodied in the Philippine pavilion. It centres around the figure of the Mongol warlord, Genghis Khan, and his portrayal in a 1950 Filipino biopic. Using Khan and his policing of the Silk Road as metaphor, the pavilion’s title, ‘To tie a string around the world’ (a line from the film), suggests that national culture emerges through international exchange. Yet the artwork presents an ambivalence: while Jose Tence Ruiz’s Shoal (2015), a rickety junk covered in rich red fabric, is both grand and shambolic, the snatches of fragmentary radio communications which haunt the Manny Montelibano film A Dashed State (2015), suggest a more disconnected outcome.

The idea of national space as a projection is at the heart of Lahore-based artist Rashid Rana’s project for the biennale, which is shown alongside the work of Indian artist, Shilpa Gupta. Titled ‘My East Is Your West’, this ‘collateral event’ is the first time at the Venice Biennale that artists from the two nations have collaborated on an exhibition. One side of a room was projected with footage of Pakistanis mugging for the camera; it gradually dawned on me that they could see me. A moment later, it registered that the room they stood in was the same one I was in. ‘Where are you?’ I asked via a floor-mounted microphone. ‘We are in Lahore’, one responded: the effect was an utterly bracing encounter. By comparison, Gupta’s presentation – dispatches from journeys across the India-Bangladesh border – while obviously highly emotionally charged, is a little impenetrable.

Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho’s video for the Korean pavilion was inspired by Taoist notions of enlightenment, yet its super-powered protagonist seems oddly trapped. Alone in a futuristic pad, her only company is the image of a labourer in a Baroque frame and the only plant life is preserved behind glass. With its hints of sci-fi – especially 2001 (1968) – and allusions to music videos (Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’, 2009), the future looks lonely, and the memory of the past cold comfort.

Taiwanese artist Wu Tien-chang’s ‘Never Say Goodbye’ at the Palazzo delle Prigioni – the former prison of the Doge’s Palace – took the space’s proximity to Venice’s famous Bridge of Sighs as a starting point to meditate on passing from life to death. In videos and a hologram, figures dressed in hyper-cute uniforms (a sailor, a pilot, a nurse) rendered as PVC body gloves, stood against the sort of trompe l’oeil backdrops of romantic landscapes found in early-20th-century portrait studios. Each seemed like a ghost desperately clinging to its corporeal form.

Japan’s Chiharu Shiota’s exhibition ‘The Key in the Hand’ was the most powerful presentation, but not because of its main installation. Although impressive, the womb-like webs of red thread strung with keys donated to the artist by people who had forgotten what they opened was a little too kitsch for my taste. Rather, it was the four videos of children in Japan and Germany responding to the question, ‘How did you come into the world?’ that was the most moving. The weird precision of their answers was arresting: ‘There was a green carpet and an orange carpet’ declared one child; another described swimming in his mother’s belly; one girl remembered her father’s voice beckoning her. The children all seemed to understand that memory is, sometimes, whatever we decide it to be. The stories we are told about where we come from shape a nation no less than borders do. But it wasn’t the political resonance of these videos that I loved: it was because it was the only art I saw in Venice which made everyone who saw it smile.

Matthew McLean is creative director at Frieze Studios. He lives in London, UK.